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Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona

Deborah Ancona is the Seley Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Faculty Director of the MIT Leadership Center.

Nice engine, but does the steering wheel work?

Q: Has the recent success of the Tea Party come because of, or in spite of, the movement's lack of a formal leadership structure? Along with Wikipedia, open-source software and organizations like moveon.org, is this another example of the power of distributed leadership?

The success of the Tea Party has come, like other distributed-leadership examples, because people are motivated by a cause, feel empowered to act and are unhappy with the status quo. The Tea Party has provided people with a platform and a structure to channel their efforts with others and multiply their impact. They are part of a movement larger than themselves. But contrary to popular belief the Tea Party, like most successful distributed-leadership efforts, is enabled by strong executive leaders. While not formal leaders, people like Sarah Palin and Mark Williams provide key ideas, publicity and inspiration to the party fueling its engine.

But there is cause for alarm. Most successful distributed-leadership efforts have people, systems and structures that not only inspire and motivate action but that also align efforts, vet and challenge key ideas, and mitigate risk. There is an engine for energizing people but also brakes and a steering wheel to avoid accidents. For example, even if many people contribute freely to Wikipedia there are others to check their work and make corrections. Similarly in open-source software efforts like Linux, there is a small set of "guards" who decide whose work will make it through and whose will not. There are checks and balances even in these distributed-leadership efforts. But who is there to counter the Tea Party claims that President Obama is a Muslim not born in this country? That such blatantly incorrect information is believed by so many is cause for alarm--but the Tea Party movement seems unable to respond as its leaders struggle amongst themselves.

President Obama, on the other hand, benefited from a very successful distributed-leadership effort during his election, only to lose it when he won. After an amazing campaign that both energized people and also directed and checked their efforts, he could not find a place for all this energy and enthusiasm in the White House. Many who elected him were left on the side lines as Obama focused on Congress. The result of this extreme mobilization followed by perceived abandonment is deep disenchantment.

At this time corporations and government alike are struggling to move from "command and control" to "distributed" leadership. So far it is clear that we are still in learning mode.

By Deborah Ancona

 |  September 21, 2010; 5:02 PM ET
Category:  Government leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Can a movement lead without leaders? | Next: The tea party, Wikipedia and al-Qaeda: shared leadership lessons?


Please report offensive comments below.

Well, it seems to me that Pres. Obama won with lofty talk that inspired people because they felt their life was going to be so great when he was elected. It was always clear to anyone with any sense of the past that this was very unlikely to come true. The media did a very poor job of covering the Obama campaign and his personal past. The people with whom one chooses to associate do define a person at least to some extent. Personally, I think the media (WaPO, NYT, major news networks, cable news) is doing a very poor job these days and the media is terribly biased. Who wants to listen any more???

Posted by: jack711 | September 22, 2010 8:33 AM
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